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| CHAPTER II
ALONG THE GYPSY TRAIL
Banda Bela found life in the Gypsy camp quiet, but not unpleasant. He had a place to sleep and food to eat. Jarnik was good to him and Marushka his devoted friend. Rosa, a young and very pretty Gypsy girl, was kind to the waif, and the rest of the tribe paid no attention to him. What was one ragged boy, more or less, to them? The camp fairly swarmed with them.
Since the Tziganes had crossed the mountains from India many hundred years ago, they had wandered about Hungary, and the Gypsies to whom Banda Bela had come were of the Gletecore, or wandering Gypsies, a better race than the Kortoran who dwell in mud huts or caves near the villages.
The Gletecore are never still. They wander from one end of Hungary to the other, playing their music, begging, stealing, sometimes carving little utensils out of wood, or tinkering for the living which seems to come to them easily, perhaps because they want but little.
There was little that Banda Bela could do, but he waited upon old Jarnik, ran errands, watched Marushka, and caught many a fine fish from the river for the fire-pot. The Danube was full of fish, delicious in flavour.
Always the little boy could make music, and his violin charmed many an hour for him, while Marushka, ever following at his heels like a little dog, learned to love his music scarcely less than he did.
One morning Marushka wakened Banda Bela by calling loudly:
"Banda Bela! Come! The sun is up. Stepan has come back, and they move the camp to-day!"
Banda Bela sprang to his feet and hurried out of the tent. Already there were signs of stir in the camp. Stepan, a young Gypsy chief, was standing beside the cart which was being loaded with camp utensils. Banda Bela had not seen him before, for the chief had been away from the band ever since the boy came.
Stepan was six feet tall; part of his coal-black hair was braided into a tight knob over his forehead, the rest hung down in matted, oily locks upon his shoulders. In his mouth was a long Weixel-wood pipe, and he wore a loose, white, cotton shirt gathered around the neck, and baggy white trousers. He was very handsome and his copper-coloured skin shone as if it was polished. All about him swarmed children and dogs, while the older Gypsies were packing up the camp effects and loading them into the two or three carts, which patient horses stood ready to draw.
"Eat quickly," cried Marushka. "There is but a crust left, I saved it for you. We go on the road to-day, and hunger will gnaw your stomach before we camp again." Banda Bela took the food, ate it hurriedly, and ran up to Stepan.
"Let me help," he said briefly.
"Who are you and what can you do?" the young chief looked him over keenly.
"I am Banda Bela. I can make music with my violin, swing an adze, cut bowls from wood, drive a horse, row a boat, catch fish, do as I am bid, and keep my tongue silent," he said.
"If you can do the last two things you have already learned much," said Stepan. "Go and help Jarnik load, for he is old and feels himself young."
Banda Bela nodded and went over to where the old man was loading one of the carts. He helped as best he could and soon the wagons were loaded and the camp deserted. The Gypsies had taken the road. It was a beautiful day. The wind blew cool and free from the river, which swept along at the foot of wooded heights, gleaming like glass in the morning sun. Ducks splashed in the water, and now and then Banda Bela saw the waters boil and bubble. Something black would flash above the surface, there would be a splash and a swirl of waters, and the radiating ripples reached the shore as a great fish would spring into the air, flash in the sunlight, and sink into the waters again.
Steamers passed down the stream on their way to Budapest, or towing huge barges filled with the peasants' teams and wagons, loaded with grain to be ground at the quaint water mills, built on piles out in the stream where the current was so strong as to turn the huge wheels quickly and grind the grain, raised on the great plains of the south. To the north the mountains rose blue and beautiful. The boy saw all. His eyes shone; his cheek was flushed.
"Good is the Gypsy trail," he said to himself. "Sun, light, and wind, all free, and I am with mine own people. Life is sweet."
All day long the carts rumbled along. When the sun was high overhead the Gypsies rested beside the river. Banda Bela caught some fish, and Rosa cooked them for supper.
Next day they turned from the river and travelled over the plains. There was no shade. To the right stretched great fields of maize and flax. The dust was white and fine, and so hot it seemed almost to prick their faces like needles. It rose in white clouds around the carts and followed them in whirling columns.
In front of them from time to time other clouds of dust arose, which, upon nearing, they discovered to be peasant carts, driven with four or six horses, for the peasants in this part of Hungary are rich and prosperous. The soil is fertile and yields wonderful crops, though for ninety years it has had no rest, but the peasants are not tempted to laziness by the ease with which things grow. They begin their day's work at three o'clock in the morning and work until eight or nine at night, eating their luncheon and supper in the fields.
Banda Bela saw many of them, fine, tall fellows, working easily and well, but in his heart he was glad that he did not have to toil under the hot sun.
Shepherds were seated here and there in the fields, looking like small huts, for they wore queer conical bundas which covered them from their necks to their knees. These sheepskin coats are worn both winter and summer, for the shepherds say they keep out heat as well as cold.
The shepherds must watch the flocks by day and night, and when the weather is wet they sleep sitting on small round stools to keep them from the damp ground. Toward dark the Gypsy band halted by the roadside, near to a group of shepherds' huts. Here they were to stop for the night and Banda Bela was glad, for his legs ached with fatigue. He had walked nearly all day except for a short time when Marushka had asked to have him ride in the cart and play for her.
The shepherds greeted the Tziganes kindly. Jews and Armenians the Hungarians dislike, but for the Gypsies there is a fellow feeling, for all Hungarians love music and nearly all Tziganes have music at their fingers' ends and in their velvet voices.
The Gypsies pitched their tents and Banda Bela stole aside from the camp to play his beloved violin. He tuned it and then gently ran his bow up and down the strings and began a soft little melody. It was like the crooning song of a young mother to her child. The boy was a genius, playing with wonderful correctness and with a love for music which showed in every note he sounded. The shepherds paused in preparing their evening meal and listened. When he ceased playing they called to him, "If you will play more you may eat with us."
"I will play gladly, and gladly will I eat," he answered, showing in a gleaming smile his teeth, even and white as a puppy's. In the pockets of the shepherds' coats were stored all manner of good things, bacon, black bread, and wine, even slivowitz, the wonderfully good Hungarian brandy, which Banda Bela had tasted only once in his life, but which the Gypsies make to perfection.
The shepherds' camp had a one-roomed, straw-thatched hut, which they used as a storehouse for their coats and extra food supplies. A great well was in front of the hut. It had a huge beam of wood with a cross-piece at the top and from this hung a bucket. The boy drew up a bucketful of the water and found it deliciously cold.
Near the camp was the shepherds' cooking hut, made of reeds tied together and with a hole in the top for the escape of the smoke. The hut looked like a corn shock with a door in one side. This door was open and Banda Bela saw a fire burning brightly, a pot hung over the embers, and a smell of kasa arose, as a tall shepherd tossed the meal and bacon into a kind of cake.
Marushka had strayed away from the Gypsies and now stood beside Banda Bela shyly watching the cooking in silence. She was a quiet little thing, with her golden hair unlike the bold, black-eyed little Gypsy children who rolled around the ground, half clad, snatching food from the pot and gnawing bones like hungry dogs.
"Who is this child?" asked one of the shepherds. "She is no Gypsy. What is your name, child?"
"I am Marushka," she answered sweetly. "Who are you?"
"I am a shepherd," he said, smiling at her.
"Do you tend sheep all day?" she demanded.
"No, once I was one of the juhasz1 , but now I am past that. I am one of the gulyas2 , and in another year I shall be among the csikos3 ."
"Where are your oxen?" asked Marushka.
"There in the plain," he said, pointing to what looked like a great, still, white sea some distance away. As he spoke the sea seemed to break into waves, first rippling, then stormy, as the oxen rose to their feet, many of them tossing their heads in the air and bellowing loudly. They were immense creatures, perfectly white and very beautiful, with great dark eyes and intelligent faces.
"There are my children," said the shepherd. "But I am afraid there is a wind storm coming, for they show fear only of storm or fire." He watched the herd for a few moments, but though they snuffed the air they finally settled down quietly to rest again.
"Let us eat," said the shepherd. "Perhaps the storm has passed over."
How good the kasa tasted. The little Tziganes had never eaten it before, and they enjoyed it thoroughly.
The sun was sinking in the west, and the yellow fields of grain were gleaming as if tipped with gold. Dusk deepened, stars peeped out of the violet heavens. Here and there leaped sudden flame, as some shepherd, feeling lonely, signalled thus to a friend across the plain. Mists rose white and ghost-like; the land seemed turned to silver. The tired children turned to seek their camp to sleep when —
"Lie down!" cried one of the shepherds. "Lie flat on your faces and do not stir! A storm comes!" So urgent was the call that Banda Bela dropped at once flat upon the grass, grasping Marushka's hand and pulling her down beside him.
"Don't be afraid," he said. "Only lie still and the storm will pass above us." She lay like a little frightened bird, trembling and quivering, but saying nothing. The great wind broke over them with a swirl as of fierce waters. It whistled and screamed, blowing with it a fine white dust, then as quickly as it had come it passed, and all was still. Banda Bela raised his head and looked around him. The wind had died down as suddenly as it had sprung up and the plain was so still that not even the grasses stirred. Their shepherd friends rose from the ground where they too had thrown themselves, and one of them called to the children to come back.
"Are you safe?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," said Banda Bela.
"I was frightened, but Banda Bela held my hand," said little Marushka. "Now I am very thirsty."
"The dust and wind always cause great thirst," said the herder. "But no one need be thirsty in the 'Land of a Thousand Springs!' Here is water cool and fresh in the great well, and a little sweet, white wine. Drink and then run quickly away to sleep, for it is late for small men and women."
"What are those giant things which stand so dark against the sky? They frighten me," cried Marushka, as she clung to Banda Bela and looked behind the shepherds' huts.
"Only mighty haystacks, little one. Enough hay is there to last twenty regiments of soldiers fifty years, so that our cattle need never go hungry. Go now. To-morrow you camp here and I will show you many things."
"Would that those children were mine," he said to himself as the two ran away to the camp. "The boy I like, he is clean and straight, and his music stirs my soul; but the little girl reaches my very heart."